It is no secret that WBAI's listener-sponsors have dwindled down to the lowest figure in the station's 56-year history, chased off by pedestrian programming and producer/hosts whose work insults even the mildest intelligence.
When the concept materialized in the form of Berkley station KPFA-FM, it was received well but in moderation. Ten years later, it was still on the air and—along with KPFK, a North Hollywood sister station—discerningly challenging commercial broadcasters. Not everybody loved Pacifica's stations, but they won wide respect among a public and colleagues who recognized the need for alternative voices.
Applied to Pacifica, "alternative" did not necessarily translate into contrary or rebellious attitude—although that was sometimes implied—but rather into freedom of speech, unconstrained artistic expression, microphone access based upon ability, substance and vision rather than popularity, and something as basic as a flexible air allowance. A program was only as long or short as the time it took to deliver it.
In 1959, Louis Schweitzer—a remarkable businessman, the son of a successful Russian immigrant—decided that Pacifica was on the right path, so he made the Foundation a no strings attached gift of WBAI-FM, his small but powerful New York City station that had served to satisfy an abiding interest in audio technology. It was a commercially licensed station located between NBC and CBS on the dial, but Lou wanted it to reflect his cultural interests, so he accepted advertising from the likes of Steinway and MOMA, not Proctor an Gamble. "On your way from NBC to CBS," he liked to say, "stop in for refreshment."
It was Pacifica's near-European approach to radio that made me move my FM dial to 99.5 in late 1960. I had lived in the U.S. for two years and spent most of that time working in commercial radio, but here was something I could love and identify with. Soon, I was a WBAI volunteer, then a salaried board operator, and eventually the Station Manager.
I admired the high level of intelligence WBAI's programming mirrored, but just as impressive was the staff's common goal and high spirit. It was not a picture of perfect harmony, but the internal disagreements were what one might expect to find in a work place driven by political idealism, artistic expression and a determination to beat the odds against survival in what FCC Commissioner Newton Minow described as a vast wasteland.
In its formative years, the Sixties, WBAI served as a vital link to the past and a crystal ball gaze at what lay ahead. Its own future seemed assured by the extraordinary caliber of people it attracted on both sides of the microphone—a cultural revolution was taking place and WBAI seemed made for it.
What happened? Simply put, how did the Riesling turn to Ripple? Theories abound, the transition team of opportunists changes gradually with each hiring mistake and many are gone and forgotten as current occupants—now abetted by a corrupt PNB voting majority—reach the nadir of WBAI's existence.
A few stalwart savants continue to deliver isolated moments of intelligence and enlightenment, but the never perfect, always remarkable little station some of us remember remains hijacked by people of minimal thought and maximal self-interest—an obscure rubble in the country's largest and most significant radio market, a stagnant third rate racist outlet where hare-brained neer-do-wells compete for undeserved attention.
Riddled with lies and deceit, this is a complex, confused story that is likely to remain untold, but many factors have led WBAI to the end of its tether. The last straw may well be found in the station's fund raising scam, a conduct that has crossed the border of criminality and rendered the terms "honesty", "integrity" and "morality" meaningless.
The so-called "studio" at Atlantic Avenue is not equipped to take calls from listeners, that service having been cut for non-payment of a $28,000 bill. Because "Off the Hook," like many live WBAI programs, is designed for two-way communication with its listeners, the show's technically savvy producers improvised a temporary connection, as evidenced in the attached audio excerpt.
It should be noted that OTH creates its own premiums and delivers them to the station manager ready for shipment to consumers (who have paid a price that includes s&h). Management (i.e. Berthold Reimers) collects the paid fee, but—with alarming regularity—fails to follow up on the station's obligation. As you will hear on the attached audio clips from last Wednesday's OTH, this criminal practice on the part of management is systematic and dates back at least two years.
These calls are but a short sample of commonplace complaints; bear them in mind the next time you hear Reimers or a crony like Mitchel Cohen deny any wrongdoing. Think of this, too, when you hear Tony Bates distort black history or offer a bogus "cure", or when Haskins, Davis, Reggie Johnson or any of the other deluded deceivers refer to WBAI as a "free speech" station that deserves your donations.
The truth is that WBAI is where these con artists lie, repeatedly.